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by Satoshi Ochi, Kazuhiko Kagawa, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation and Glenn A. Calhoon, Kevin Beamer, Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc.

Vacuum Circuit Breaker Technology

Vacuum Interrupters How They Work

he continuing use of vacuum interrupter technology in the power distribution market as replacements for oil circuit breakers has exposed this technology to people who have not been previously exposed to it. This article covers the features of the vacuum interrupter and how they correspond to the ability of the interrupter to perform according to its ratings.

Vacuum interruption technology has been used for many years and has proven itself to be a reliable means for interrupting fault currents in distribution switchgear. The application of vacuum circuit breakers as replacements for oil circuit breakers offers many advantages to the user in areas such as maintenance, performance, and environmental
Bushing Bushing current transformer Mechanism access door High-voltage compartment High-voltage access door Breaker module Mechanism access door Vacuum interrupter Low-voltage compartment Low-voltage access door Integral internal ground pad, typ 2 corners Conduit entrance

concerns. From a maintenance point of view, with a vacuum breaker there is no oil handling required with the associated clean up as well as long contact life and lower mechanism operating forces due to the small size and stroke required by a vacuum interrupter. A typical vacuum interrupter as applied in a distribution breaker will easily handle 10,000 operations at rated continuous current and more than 20 full fault operations without the need for contact replacement. Also, as a result of the lower mechanical requirements the mechanisms in todays vacuum breakers are much simpler in design with fewer moving parts and lighter loads being applied.

1. Breaker Overview
The structure of an outdoor vacuum circuit breaker (VCB) is shown in Fig.1. The three-phase ganged interrupter assembly is mounted in a self-contained breaker module containing the operating mechanism, auxiliary switch, mechanical linkage, and vacuum interrupter (VI) mounted in its own support insulator. The mechanical linkage and supporting framework are isolated from the high voltage interrupter by an insulated drive rod and the interrupter support insulators.

2. Features of Vacuum Interrupters

2.1 The Property of Vacuum
The dielectric strength of a vacuum is superior to other dielectric mediums such as air and SF6 gas as shown in Fig. 2. Due to high dielectric strength of a vacuum environment, it is possible to reduce the arcing time of the interrupter as the dielectric capabilities of a vacuum can better withstand the generated transient recovery voltage (TRV). The net result of this is the

Ground pad typ opposite corner

Figure 1 Structure of an Outdoor VCB (17.5 kV-25 kA)

This article was developed from the 2006 Doble Client Conference Paper Vacuum Circuit Breaker Technology: Vacuum Interrupters How They Work by Satoshi Ochi, Kazuhiko Kagawa, Glenn A. Calhoon, and Kevin Beamer. Published with permission of Doble Engineering Company. www.netaworld.org Summer 2010 NETA WORLD

Vacuum SF6 (0.1MPa) Air (0.1MPa)

the magnetic force generated by the current flow, this will cause the arc to be forced from the point of origin across the spiral petal to the outer diameter of the contact. Once the arc is on the outer edge of the contact, the magnetic force along the outer diameter will cause the arc to rotate around the outside diameter of the contact until it is extinguished. The AMF contact structure will generate an axial magnetic field caused by the current flow through the contacts which in turn will create a diffuse arc (low energy arc) over the entire contact area dispersing the arc energy over the contact surface area. The diameter of spiral contacts can be smaller than that of the AMF contact structure for the same fault current rating due to its ability to rapidly move and control the arc energy. In comparison the AMF contacts are superior for applications which require long arcing times and require a high number of full fault interruptions.

Figure 2 Dielectric Strength Properties of Vacuum

minimum arcing time of a 15 kV vacuum circuit breaker is approximately 1 to 2 ms. The higher dielectric capability of the vacuum will yield a lower arc voltage and therefore reduce the amount of arc energy to be dissipated across the contacts in comparison with other interrupting mediums. This results in vacuum interrupters being able to break large fault currents with a short interrupting time and with minimal contact erosion. These properties allow vacuum interrupters to have a very compact design.

2.2 Basic Structure of Vacuum Interrupters

The basic structure of a vacuum interrupter is shown in Fig. 3. The main contacts are installed in a ceramic insulator -5 in which high vacuum approximately 10 Pa is maintained. The movable terminal is connected to the breaker mechanism through an insulated drive rod which will open and close the interrupter contacts. A stainless steel bellows is used to allow contact travel and still maintain the integrity of the vacuum in the interrupter. The contact material strongly affects the interrupting capability, service life, and reliability of the vacuum interrupter. There are three types of contact designs used in vacuum interrupters, and they are applied based on their application as shown in Table 1. Generally, in applications with fault currents below approximately 20 kA, a flat butt type of contact design is sufficient. In applications where fault currents can exceed 20 kA, the design limitation of the contact will manifest itself as a localized high energy arc which results in large amounts of metal vapor being placed in the contact zone and thereby limiting the fault rating of the interrupter. In order to improve the interrupters fault capacity either the spiral or axial magnetic field (AMF) contact design can be applied. These contacts are used in higher fault ratings as they are able to utilize the force created by the magnetic fields associated with the fault current. This enables the interrupter to effectively control the generated arc and therefore create a more efficient interrupter design. The spiral contacts will generate a magnetic field caused by the current flow through the contact. Due to

Figure 3 Basic Structure of a Vacuum Interrupter

Table 1
Typical Contact Structures
Contact Structure Figure Flat Contact Spiral Contact Axial Magnetic Field Contact


VCB (General) LBS Contactor

VCB (Large capactiry)

VCB (More interruption) VCB (Low surge) Cu-Cr alloy Ag-WC alloy


Cu-Cr alloy Ag-WC alloy Cu-W alloy

Cu-Cr alloy

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thus metal vapor in the contact area can be controlled. This will result in greater interrupting ratings for the contacts and longer contact life.

By usingArc a high-speed video camera and a specially Arc Arc Appears between Arc between Arc appears appears between contacts adapted vacuum chamber, the motion of the arc movecontacts contacts 1ms 1 ms 1.5ms ment can be observed. Fig. 4 shows the movement of the arc for a spiral contact configuration during fault current The arc starts to move Arc starts to diffuse by by The arc starts to diffuse interruption. At contact part plus 1.5 ms, the arc has been by Magnetic drive Axial magnetic Magnetic Field axial field established between the contacts. At contact part plus 2 ms 3 ms 3ms 2.0ms the arc is beginning to rotate around the outer edge of the contacts as a result of the magnetic forces that are being Arc and Arc spreads spreads and Rotation of Arcthe generated from the flow of the fault current through interruption is completing completing interruption is contacts. This movement of the arc around the outer diam2.5ms 5ms 5 ms eter of the contact surface provides the greatest amount of surface forArc the Control arc to travel over thus providing a larger area Fixed contact Fixed contact 2.3 During Interruption to distribute the heat generated from the arc. The net result of this movement of the arc video is less localized overheating of adapted vacuum chamber the motion Movable By using high-speed camera and a specially of the contact arc Movable contact the contact surfaces and therefore less metal vapor being movements can be observed. Fig. 4 shows the movement of the arc for a spiral contact configuration introduced the area between the contact surfaces.part This + 1.5ms the arc has been established between the duringinto fault current interruption. At contact greatly improves the interrupting capability of the intercontacts. At contact part + 2ms the arc is beginning to rotate around the outer edge of the contacts as a The Arc of spiral contacts The Arc motion of AMF contacts rupter and also results in motion less erosion the contact surfaces, result of the magnetic forces of that are being generated from theFigure flow 5of fault current through the the The Arc Motion of AMF Contacts improving the life ofmovement the interrupter. contacts. This of the arc around the outer diameter of the contact surface provides the greatest Fig. 5 shows the arcing that takes place over in an AMF amount of surface for the arc to travel thus providing a larger area to distribute the heat FIGURE 4 FIGURE 5 generated contact configuration during fault interruption. At contact from the arc. The net result of this movement of the arc results in less localized overheating of the 2.4 Short Circuit Fault part plus 1 ms, the arc is beginning bemetal dispersed as being a contact surfaces and therefore to less vapor introduced into the area Interruption between the contact resultsurfaces of the axial magnetic fields generated by the contact 6 shows a typical oscillograph during short-circuit this greatly improves the interrupting capability ofFig. the interrupter and also results in less erosion 2.3 Short Circuit Fault Interruption geometry. This dispersal will generate numerous low energy current interruption. When the contacts separate during of the contact surfaces improving the life of the interrupter. arcs (macroscopically one diffused arc) which will spread fault interruption an arc appears between the contacts and Fig.6 shows a typical oscillograph during short circuit current interruption. When the contacts separate out across the entire contact surface by contact part plus 3 is maintained until the next current zero crossing is encounFigure 5 shows the arcing that takes place in an AMF contact configuration during fault interruption. At zero during fault interruption an arc between contacts and is maintained until the next current ms. As the contacts to separate, the appears density of the the tered. At the same time, an the arc contacts. voltage present across the contact part + continue 1ms the arc is beginning to be time, dispersed as a result of the axial magnetic fieldsis generated crossing is encountered. At the same an arc voltage is present across Once the current diffuse arc will continue to decrease so that at contact part contacts. Once the current flow is interrupted a TRV will by the contact geometry. This dispersal will generate rdnumerous low energy arcs (macroscopically one plus 5 ms interruption will occur when the next current 2006 Doble Engineering Company-73 Annual International Doble Client Conference appear across the contacts. If at the time the TRV 4 diffused arc) which will spread out across the zero entire contact surface by contact part + 3ms. As the appears, All Rights Reserved withstand of the contact gap is greater than the is encountered. By dispersing the arc energy into numerous the dielectric contacts continue to separate the density of the diffuse arc will continue to decrease so that at contact part low energy spread across the entire TRV value, the current be successfully interrupted. + 5ms arcs interruption will occur when contact the nextsurface, current zero is encountered. Bywill dispersing the arc energy If the the amount of contact erosion and thus metal vapor in the TRV is greater than the dielectric withstand the contact into numerous low energy arcs spread across the entire contact surface the amount of contact erosionof and contact area can be controlled. This will result in greater gap, the arc will reappear and will be successfully interrupted thus metal vapor in the contact area can be controlled. This will result in greater interrupting ratings for interrupting ratings for the contacts longer contact life. at the next current zero crossing. This condition will occur the contacts and longer contactand life. when the time to the first zero crossing event is less than the designed minimum arcing time of the interrupter.
1.5ms 1.5 ms The to move The arc arcstarts starts to move by Magnetic drive magnetic drive 2.0ms 2.0 ms

2.3 Arc Control During Interruption

ArcAppears appearsbetween between Arc contacts contacts


Arc appears between contacts Arc starts to diffuse by Axial Magnetic Field Arc spreads and interruption is completing


Rotationof ofArc arc Rotation 2.5 ms 2.5ms


Fixed contact Movable contact

Fixed contact Movable contact

The Arc motion of spiral contacts

Figure 4 The Arc Motion of Spiral Contacts

Figure of 6 Oscillograph The Arc motion AMF contactsDuring the Interruption



www.netaworld.org 2.3 Short Circuit Fault Interruption

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3. Design Test
The capability of a medium-voltage circuit breaker is verified by design tests specified in the IEEE/ANSI standards, C37 series. In the design tests, a series of capabilities (dielectric, current carrying, short-circuit current interruption, and other current switching) are tested to meet the required ratings. The following items, based on the design test requirements, need to be taken into consideration when demonstrating the circuit breakers capability and application.

3.1 Asymmetrical Short-Circuit Current Interruption and the Effect of Various X/R Ratios
3.1.1 The rated interrupting time of a circuit breaker is defined as the maximum permissible time interval between the energization of the trip circuit (at rated control voltage), and the interruption of the current in the main circuit in all three phases. The standards allow for cycle of relay time prior to the trip circuit energizing. This cycle of relaying time is not allowed to be counted as part of the interrupting time of the circuit breaker. A circuit breaker rated for three cycles must completely interrupt all current flowing in the main circuit by the time three cycles of 60 Hz current has passed (50 ms) after the trip circuit is energized. If the current continues to flow beyond the 50 ms, the breaker cannot be rated as a three-cycle breaker. A five-cycle breaker is one that interrupts the current between three and five cycles (50-83 ms) after the trip circuit is energized. If there is any current flow after 83 ms, the breaker cannot be rated as a five-cycle breaker. The interrupter must be able to interrupt current flow on the first or second current zero after contact part. See Fig. 7.

3.1.2. A typical short-circuit asymmetrical wave is shown in Fig. 8. For a three-cycle circuit breaker, it is necessary to complete the interruption where the interrupting time is equal to or less than three cycles. Moreover, the test procedure in the IEEE standards requires demonstrating that an interrupter can reliably interrupt current under the most severe switching conditions with the maximum arcing energy (longest arcing time and a major loop of asymmetrical current). Symmetrical interruptions must be performed to meet the ANSI/IEEE standards. The test duties included in Table 1 of IEEE C37.09-1999 demonstrate the interrupters capability to interrupt current flow, both symmetrical and asymmetrical.

Figure 8 Short Circuit Asymmetric Current (for 25 kA)

Figure 7 Three-Phase Current Interruption for Three-Cycle CB

3.1.3 The current peak value and major loop duration are controlled by the value of X/R. The X/R ratio is the ratio of the main circuits inductance divided by the resistance. The higher the ratio is, the slower the decay of the dc component of the asymmetrical fault current. Fig. 8 shows the decay characteristic of an asymmetrical current. Notice the peak current decreasing with time. A standard value of X/R is given as 17 at 60 Hz in IEEE Std C37.09-1999. However, the purchaser of the breaker needs to evaluate his system and verify that the X/R of the system is less than 17. When the circuit has an inherently high X/R, the interrupting time must still meet the interruption rating of the breaker (three or five cycles); however, the arcing time will increase due to a larger major current loop. The major loops will not only have an increased time between current zeros, it will also have a higher peak current due to a higher X/R ratio. Very high X/R ratios may not even have a current zero for the first couple of cycles. For example, if you compared an X/R=30 with an X/R=17 (see Fig. 8), the arcing time increases by a factor of 1.1, and the current peak value increases by a factor of 1.4. www.netaworld.org

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3.1.4 Symmetrical current interruptions must also be performed according to IEEE C37.09-1999, Table 1. The symmetrical interruptions are required for design testing and to verify that the contact serviceability as stated in IEEE C37.04-1999 section is achieved. The standards require a minimum of 800 percent of the required asymmetrical interrupting capability of the circuit breaker be accumulated on a single interrupter. Contact serviceability is the amount of contact erosion that the interrupter must be able to withstand and still be able to perform a successful interruption. 3.1.5 There are several design features that cause a vacuum interrupter to be superior to other types of interrupters for this application. The AMF style of contact inside the interrupter allows for a longer arcing time due to the low current density of the diffused arc. This reduced energy will keep the surface of the contacts from overheating and thus reduce the possibility of restrikes. The reduction of restrikes is due to reduced hot spots and reduced metal vapor in the contact gap.

3.2 Transient Recovery Voltage

TRV (kV)

For circuit breakers rated below 100 kV, in IEEE Std C37.04-1999, the rated TRV is represented by a 1-cosine wave, while on the other hand, in IEC 62271-100, 2003 the TRV is represented by an exponential-cosine wave as shown in Table 2 and Fig. 9. These ratings are for shortcircuit tests, duty 4 and duty 5 in IEEE C37.09 and for terminal fault test, duty T100a, in IEC. It is worth noting that in the IEEE standards the TRV specifications are different for outdoor and indoor applications. The outdoor specification is more severe than the indoor. Breakers tested and rated for indoor use, may not be suitable for outdoor applications. Also, the differences between the IEC and the IEEE TRV requirements are significant enough that breakers tested to the IEC standard may not pass testing for IEEE. The steeper slope of the recovery voltage will change the requirements of the contact design to achieve a greater rate of dielectric recovery inside the interrupter. The capability of the interrupter to successfully interrupt this high rate of rise of recovery voltages (RRRV) is dependent upon the internal geometry of the interrupter. The type of contact and the surrounding dielectric fields produced by the internal shield all have a large impact on the capability of the interrupter. The AMF style of contact is well suited for this purpose due to reduced hot spots and metal vapor in the contact gap. The smooth contact surface allows for a very rapid dielectric recovery of the gap which allows the vacuum interrupter to withstand the TRV better than other types of medium. The rapid recovery allows for small contact gaps, which translates to a very short stroke of the interrupter and operating mechanisms.

3.3 Continuous Current Carrying Capability of Vacuum Interrupters

3.3.1 The rated continuous current of a breaker is determined by the current carrying capability without exceeding the temperature limitations as listed in Table 2 of IEEE C37.04-1999. This temperature limit takes into consideration the types of materials, plating, and atmosphere that surround the point where the temperature is being measured.

Time (s)
Figure 9 TRV Waveform for 15-17.5 kV Breaker

The TRV characteristics depend on the system in which a circuit breaker is installed. The TRV is controlled mainly by the amount of inductance and/or capacitance on each side of the breaker. However, to provide a general application guide, the TRV values under most system circuit conditions are specified in the following standards.

Table 3
Example of the Limits of Total Temperature and Temperature Rise
Nature of the part and material Contact Connections, bolted or the equivalent Total temperature (C) 105 115 Temperature rsie at ambient 40C) 65 75

Table 2
Rating of TRV for 15-17.5 kV Breaker IEEE Outdoor 15.5 kV Peak (kV) Rise (kV/s) 29 0.81 IEEE Indoor 15 kV 28 0.37 IEC 17.5 kV 30 0.42

Silver-coated in air


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temperature rise associated with the higher resistance. The spiral or butt Example of Typical Measurement Points and the Temperature Limitation (C) type contact is generally better suited for high continuous currents than the Measurement Incoming Bus Top of Upper Bus Top of VI Moving Lower Bus AMF style of contact. Consideration point Bushing Stem of VI must also be given to the location Temperature 65 Tin 75 Silver 75 Silver 75 Silver 75 Silver 5 from where the circuit breaker will be inrise limit coated coated coated coated top of busing coated stalled. If the installation site has an temp during ambient temperature rating of 50C, testing as compared to the 40C used in the IEEE standards, then the total temperature rise must be decreased accordingly (by The most common spot in a VCB where temperature 10C in this case). The overall performance of the rise is a concern is the moving stem of the vacuum interrupter needs to be considered to determine the interrupter. It is necessary to monitor the temperature best contact design, material, and size for any given very closely at this critical connection point where the application. To ensure proper application of the circurrent path must allow for the motion of conductors. cuit breaker, the purchaser and manufacturer should A typical temperature rise graph is shown in Fig. 10. review the test reports. In a medium-voltage VCB, the thermal time constant is usually small. If a VCB is required to carry overload 3.4 Dielectric Capabilities of Vacuum current for several hours, the temperature rise on a Interrupters. VCB will approach the saturation values. This tem3.4.1 Vacuum interrupters are well suited to withstand perature may be over the thermal limits of materials. voltage surges due to the rapid recovery of the dielecWhether or not the breaker will exceed any critical tric strength of the contact gap caused by the high temperature limits will need to be evaluated carelevel vacuum. Other types of interrupter medium fully. The IEEE standards cover standard overload take much longer to recover due to the need to rerequirements; refer to IEEE C37.10-1999 section move hot gas (in SF6 for example) from the gap. The 5.4.4. If the breaker will be required to exceed these smooth contact surfaces and surrounding geometry limits, the purchaser and manufacturer will need to (primarily the internal shield), as well as the high review the continuous current test data to verify the level of vacuum, all contribute to the interrupters breakers capability for higher overload ratings. voltage withstand capability.

Table 4

3.4.2 Lightning Impulse Withstand Voltage (BIL)

Temperature rise (K)

Time (min)
Figure 10 Example of Temperature Rise Time Charts

3.3.2 The size and design of the main contacts and conductors contribute to the continuous current rating of the interrupter. The larger the contact diameter, the better the current carrying capability. The contact design and material also play a part in the continuous current rating. The different contact materials may have different resistance values. A higher resistance value may limit the amount of current due to the

Vacuum is very reliable during lightning impulse withstand voltage. This is demonstrated by testing performed per section 4.4. of IEEE C37.09-1999. The flat design of contacts and the voltage profiling of the surrounding components (for example, the internal shield, bellows, moving contact stem, etc.) make this a very impulse friendly interrupter. Another factor that allows the small contact gap to withstand voltage surges is the high level of vacuum inside the interrupter. A high level vacuum eliminates all foreign particles within the interrupter. This results in having no impurities and a very low molecular count across the contact gap. The absence of foreign particles and molecules will not allow the voltage to jump across the internal gap. There are several ways of improving the external dielectric capabilities of a vacuum interrupter. Many manufacturers will use various types of minor modifications to improve the dielectric capabilities, or margins, within a particular interrupter design. Some examples are the use of an externally contoured, or shedded, porcelain body to increase the creepage distance. The increase in creepage distance allows for more margin in a high contamination environment. www.netaworld.org

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Another example would be to use a heat shrink material on the ends to increase creep and strike. The use a potting material to completely cover the outside of the interrupter to increase the dielectric strength has also been used for increased margins or capabilities of a given interrupter design. Vacuum interrupters are ideal for use in low-, medium-, and even the lower end of high-voltage applications. Vacuum will eventually be used in high-voltage applications as technology keeps improving the capability of vacuum interrupters. The internal design of the vacuum interrupter, especially the main contacts, greatly impacts the capability of the interrupter. There are different types of contact designs that will utilize different materials to achieve different ratings and capabilities. The internal design of the interrupter will depend on the rating of the circuit breaker where the interrupter will be installed. Some of the items to consider on the internal design are not only the contact shape but also the internal shield shape, the moving stem shape, blending radii, and even the mounting configuration of the vacuum interrupter. Whether the breaker will be primarily used for capacitor switching duty, transformer magnetizing, or just fault interruptions, will affect the design. It is the responsibility of the end user of the circuit breaker to verify that the breaker (ultimately the interrupter) is suited to meet the specific needs of the system. The ability of the circuit breaker to function properly on a given system will ultimately come down to the review of the test data to ensure that the breaker has been tested and verified to function correctly under the duties in which it will be asked to perform.

Glenn A. Calhoon (1969), graduated with a B.S. Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University, Philadelphia PA in 1993. Glenn joined Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc, in Warrendale PA in 2003. His main responsibility is new product development for the Medium Voltage Department of the Gas Circuit Breaker Division. Kevin Beamer (1965), graduated with a B.S. Degree in Electrical Engineering Technology from Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg PA in 1987. Kevin joined Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc, in Warrendale PA in 1993. His main responsibility is development and production for the Medium Voltage Department of the Gas Circuit Breaker Division.

[1] Vacuum Switches and their Applications, Koichi Iwahara, Denki Shoin, pp. 21-24, 1975. (in Japanese) [2] Influence of Vacuum Arc Behavior on Current Interruption Limit of Spiral Contact, Toshinori Kimura, Atsushi Sawada, Kenichi Koyama, Hiromi Koga, Tomotaka Yano th IEEE 19 Int. Symp. on Discharges and Electrical Insulation in Vacuum, 2000.
Satoshi Ochi (1974), graduated with a B.S. Degree in Material Engineering from Ehime University, Japan, in 1997. He has been with Mitsubishi Electric Corporation Power Distribution Systems Center since 1997. His main field of development is vacuum interrupters for medium voltage vacuum circuit breakers. Kazuhiko Kagawa (1964), received a M.S. Degree in Naval Architecture from Osaka University, Japan, in 1989. He joined Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, at Marugame Works in 1989. Since 1997, he has been with Power Distribution Systems Center. His main field of development and engineering is in vacuum circuit breaker technologies for medium voltage.


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